Women’s Prize 2021: longlist reaction

It’s that time again: Women’s Prize season! The 2021 longlist of 16 books was announced earlier today, and despite the fact that for the first time in a while I’m not aiming to read the *entire* longlist it has, as usual, been a fun reveal. The majority of my reading these days is comprised of women-authored books, so I’m always happy to be given a buzzy list of promising, recent titles.

However, I want to start off with acknowledging (again) that it still feels callous (putting it nicely) of the WP to have ruled prize eligibility for “legal women only,” and going on to check up on authors’ gender status, just another obstacle in the way of non-binary, gender fluid, and transitioning authors being recognized for their work. It is of course the “women’s prize,” but as a prize founded for the purpose of bringing awareness to authors historically overlooked by presitigious lit prizes like the Booker it’s incredibly frustrating to see the WP then turning around and specifically shutting out marginalized groups that may indeed include authors identifying as women and/or writing about lived experience as women. So, to start out here I want to shout out Akwaeke Emezi’s lovely and tragic The Death of Vivek Oji, which I read and loved last year and wanted to see on this list only to discover Emezi had removed themselves from the running in the face of the prize’s gender ruling. Emezi’s Freshwater was a brilliant inclusion for the Women’s Prize in 2019 and The Death of Vivek Oji would’ve been just as well-placed. This is an author on my favorites list that it’s particularly hard for me to see excluded, and they certainly can’t be the only one suddenly finding themselves out of a chance. But we can celebrate seeing the WP’s first transwoman on 2021’s list, at least! Big congrats to Torrey Peters for placing on this year’s longlist!

For an added measure of fun I’m going to introduce the books in order of my initial excitement surrounding each. This is of course arbitrary and has no bearing on the merit of the books. Now let’s dive in!

Read and Loved

Transcendent Kingdom

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This was a 5-star read and a 2020 Top 11 Favorite for me, and really the only title I was properly invested in seeing on this longlist. It’s a brilliant character study that looks deeply at depression and addiction while twining science and religion together in fresh and compelling ways. I’m thrilled to see it made the cut and I highly recommend picking this one up!

Already at the Top of my TBR

The Vanishing Half

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I just know I’m going to love this exploration of race in America’s recent past, featuring two sisters from the Deep South who separate in adulthood, one who comes back to raise her daughter in the Black community of her own childhood, and the other who starts a new life elsewhere, passing as white. I’ve been meaning to read Bennett’s work for a hot minute, and have seen rave reviews from friends. I’m aiming to read it alongside Nella Larsen’s Passing ASAP.

Piranesi

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Is it fantasy? Is it science fiction? Is it speculative? I’m not sure, but this book sounds enticingly magical and bizarre and right up my alley. I hear it’s *mysterious* and best not to know too much going in, but that’s exactly what I’m in the mood for at the moment and I love that it’s a break from the ~usual~ sort of WP fare, which shies away from most genre lit. I’m planning for this to be my second-next read, and can hardly wait.

Exciting Times

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

A messy love story in which an Irish girl living in Hong Kong becomes romantically entangled in two relationships at once- one with a (male) British banker and the other with a (female) Chinese lawyer. I’ve been looking forward to this one for ages and finally pulled it off my shelf to fit into my March TBR, so this is another title I’m expecting to get to very soon. Hearing that it’s a novelization of Lorde’s Melodrama album was all the further motivation I needed, and now it’s been longlisted besides.

Luster

Luster by Raven Leilani

I believe this is one of those millennial disaster women books, here featuring a Black artist who becomes involved with a white man in an open marriage, then befriending his wife and their adopted daughter. I’ve heard mixed things about the plot but am so intrigued to see what Leilani will do with these character dynamics, and I’ve not hit my quota of messy women books yet. This one sounds like a must-read from that category.

Wanted to Read Eventually Anyway

Detransition, Baby

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

This sounds incredible. It looks like a character-driven novel featuring a trans woman who can’t make things work in her relationship when her girlfriend decides to detransition and live as a man, their parting further complicated when a woman pregnant with his child seems to present a perfect opportunity to build a 3-parent family that could hold them all together even when romance is dead- that is, if she wanted to keep the baby in the first place. There’s gotta be some fantastic commentary and character work involved here and I’ve just been waiting for a nudge to buy a copy; this is clearly it.

Unsettled Ground

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Here’s a title that’s not quite out yet (UK pub date March 25, US pub date May 18) but sounds appealing- a story of middle-aged twins living in an isolated cottage and beset with mounting troubles following the death of their mother, who’s been keeping secrets. I’ve had Fuller’s debut novel Swimming Lessons on my shelf for years and low-key want to binge her entire catalog of work, so I’m grateful for the extra motivation here driving me to finally dig in.

Summer (Seasonal, #4)

Summer by Ali Smith

The biggest surprise on the list for me- I was under the impression that Ali Smith was satisfied with a previous win (How to be Both, 2015) and had stopped submitting her work to lit prizes, and so I just hadn’t even considered that her latest release might appear here. That said, I’ve long wanted to read Smith’s post-Brexit seasonal quartet (of which this is book 4), and have the first two on hand. I’d been waiting for this final release in order to read them all together, and while I’m looking forward to doing so and happy to see the finale on this year’s WP list, I’m not entirely sure when exactly I’m going to pick up the series.

No One Is Talking About This

No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Lockwood’s memoir Preistdaddy caught my attention a few years ago, and even though I’d not gotten around to picking it up yet I’ve been keen to read something from this author. A new novel about the dark traps of social media colliding with real life crisis sounds pretty perfect. I’ve already put in my library hold.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

A Barbados-set novel in which locals find themselves serving wealthy ex-pats in a supposed paradise with a long legacy of violence. An attempted crime turns everything upside down. This actually sounds like it could be hit or miss for me, but I added it to my TBR a while back when an author whose work I love (I want to say it was Brandon Taylor but cannot remember for sure) made a very positive remark about it on social media. I’m curious enough to give it a shot.

Read and Liked

Burnt Sugar

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

I read this 2020 Booker shortlister last fall, and liked it well enough. It’s a sharp mother-daughter story in which both women are locked into a cycle of loving and harming each other. The biggest hangup for me was simply that I came to it at a bad time, having read more than my share of motherhood books last year and thus finding the themes a bit too tired for me personally even though I thought they were handled well. It was a somewhat disappointing experience, but nonetheless I don’t begrudge this one it’s spot with the WP and loved the Indian setting.

New to Me

Small Pleasures

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Totally new to me, this one’s a London-set historical fiction novel following a local feature writer digging into one woman’s claim that her daughter is the product of a virgin birth. While investigating the miracle/fraud, our writer finds herself fitting in closely with the entire family even as her story about them disrupts all their lives. Sounds like there could be some interesting character dynamics here and who doesn’t love a dark writing story? Consider me intrigued.

Consent

Consent by Annabel Lyon

I actually did see this one on a list of anticipated 2021 releases and nearly added it to my TBR at that time, but apparently did not and it (sadly) fell off my radar. Pleased to look closer now and discover another novel featuring twins (seems to be a trend on this list), as well as a separate set of siblings; both duos face difficulty that leaves one of each duo caring for her sister, and through tragedy the caregivers also become intertwined. This might have passed me by if not for its spot here, but sounds worth a try.

Because of You

Because of You by Dawn French

Is this… a switched-at-birth story? The synopsis tells us that two mothers give birth to similar daughters, one of whom is stillborn, and seventeen years later “the gods who keep watch over broken-hearted mothers wreak mighty revenge.” Based on a quick scan of reviews it looks like race may play a role? I’m getting Jodi Picoult vibes and sensing there could be some worthwhile social commentary here but I can’t say I’m drawn to this one off the bat.

Nothing But Blue Sky

Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon

The synopsis calls this book a “a precise and tender story of love in marriage” which… does not seem like my cup of tea, at least at present. ‘Tender’ is a bit of a turn-off description for me, but it sounds like there are also secrets and uncertainty in the marriage, which at least sounds like something I could sink my teeth into. Another book that doesn’t necessarily sound bad but isn’t really grabbing my attention.

The Unsavory Choice

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig

A mystery/crime novel in which two women meet on a train and agree to murder each other’s husbands, who’ve proven unsatisfactory. But then one of them meets someone who speaks about the other in a way that throws the whole plan into question. This sounds like a run-of-the-mill which-of-these-characters-is-lying sort of mystery, and I’m relieved not to be particularly interested in it because Craig is one of the authors who publicly signed in support of JKR during her transphobic spree last year. That’s not a cause I want to support in any way with a purchase and/or review, so regardless of my interest level I’ll be skipping this one.

Women's Prize for Fiction Revealing the 2021 Women's Prize longlist - Women's  Prize for Fiction

Tl;dr/current stats: I’ve read 2 (Transcendent Kingdom, Burnt Sugar), have immediate access to 4 more (Piranesi, Exciting Times, Luster, The Vanishing Half), am planning to purchase 1 immediately (Detransition, Baby), and have just placed 2 library holds (No One is Talking About This, The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House [the only two currently available through my library]). There are 3 books I’m not interested in reading at all right now (The Golden Rule, Because of You, Nothing But Blue Sky).

I’m tentatively planning to pick up as many of the 11 books here that I’m interested in and have not read yet before the winner announcement (July 7th)- not necessarily before the shortlist announcement (April 28th), though I’ll likely rearrange my WP priorities at that point to read as many shortlisters as I can before the winner announcement. I don’t have a more concrete reading plan, and while there’s plenty I’m happily anticipating here I think I’ll have a better experience taking the list at my own pace this year rather than rushing through.

And for final notes on the overall list, I am disappointed to see there aren’t more authors of color present (there are 5, only around 30% of the list, meaning a shocking 70% is white), or more countries represented (11 authors here are British or American, accompanied by 2 Irish authors as well as one author each of Canadian, Ghanian-American, and Bajan/Barbadian nationalities). There are 5 debuts (Detransition, Baby, Exciting Times, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, Luster, and No One is Talking About This). – Infinite thanks to Rachel for doing the heavy lifting on digging up these stats!

Tell me below which titles from this year’s longlist you’ve loved or have your eye on, or simply chat initial longlist impressions!

The Literary Elephant

32 thoughts on “Women’s Prize 2021: longlist reaction”

  1. Burnt Sugar, from my review:
    “What I was expecting, was narration by the mother, the older woman sliding into dementia, explaining the choices she made which were so detrimental to her daughter’s wellbeing. What the book delivers is a torrent of grievances from a narcissistic daughter preoccupied by the legacy of her toxic mother. What irritated me most of all was that this preoccupation was focussed on the mother, as if Antara did not have *two* parents, both of whom abrogated their responsibility for their child. The text goes so far as to include a (most unpleasant) thought bubble about having a sexual relationship with her father as if to reinforce how un-fatherly he has been, but he is not the focus of the narrator’s angst. Mothers who seek self-fulfilment which impacts badly on their children are the betrayers. Fathers who do the same are a side issue.”
    Presumably the judges of this prize failed to notice this blatant sexism!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I fully agree that Burnt Sugar hones in on the MC’s dissatisfaction with her mother and for the most part skips over the father’s failings. I had a few different thoughts about that- first, while I’m not particularly knowledgeable about Indian culture and traditions, I got the impression through the book that in that particular setting different things are expected of men than women, so a man’s failure to parent properly may have been nothing unusual while the woman’s failures may have been less expected and thus more hurtful, hence the focus skewing that way. I also thought the MC was not an entirely reliable narrator- if I remember right, there’s at least one scene in the book where a relative tells her she remembers something about her mother wrong, and truly all the info we get about the mother (and the father) comes from this very biased source, the daughter who feels wronged, and so I don’t think we can necessarily read her as an authority on anything beyond her own feelings or any sort of moral paragon. I also thought that with the MC pregnant herself she’s probably preoccupied with thoughts of her own relationship with her child, and thus more interested in her relationship with her mother at the moment than holding her father to task. Men and women should take equal responsibility for parenting but I think the relationship of the child to each of them is always going to be different. But all of that aside, I definitely think you’re correct in noting that the standard of expectation for the father and mother in the book are very much not the same, which can send an unfortunate message.

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  2. I am also very happy to see Transcendent Kingdom on the list, it is the only book I read … unfortunately. Nonetheless, I have on top of my reading list some of the titles – The Vanishing Half, Burnt Sugar, and How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House (heard about this book and many other interesting Carribean books from instagrammer Carribean Girl Reading @bookofcinz).
    Looking forward to the shortlist selection!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I love bookofcinz’s content! I’ve only been on Instagram sporadically though for the last few months so I missed her mentioning One-Armed Sister, but it’s encouraging to hear that she’s recommended it! And if the judges say it ranks up there with Transcendent Kingdom it really must be good. ๐Ÿ™‚ It looks like plenty of exciting titles on the list- I hope you’ll have a good time reading more of them soon!

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  3. It’s a very white list, isn’t it? It particularly struck me that there were a clutch of good Ugandan novels this year, not one of which is here, and yet we have two millennial disaster novels (Exciting Times, Luster) and three ‘middlebrow’ (for want of a better word) English books (Small Pleasures, The Golden Rule, Unsettled Ground). I’m actually keen to read some of the titles I just listed, but I wish the Prize would stop clustering like this.

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    1. It is very white. I would’ve happily traded a good Ugandan novel or two for some of the repetitive-seeming content here, especially those middlebrow (it does seem a pretty fitting term) English mysteries! Which I’m sure are fine books, just not particularly exciting to see as prize contenders. I feel just the same about being eager to read some of these titles but at the same time feeling the longlist could have been stronger with more variety.

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      1. The Prize does seem to have a tendency to cluster around certain themes (Greek myth, motherhood, now twins!) I think they should deliberately check this.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I did find it odd how many twin books there were this year! And I think Naty noticed there are 3 or 4 titles with relationships in which a third person becomes entangled, too. It can be enjoyable to compare and contrast but I think you’re right, allowing for clusters is also limiting.

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  4. Very much agree with you and Laura. Overall this yearโ€™s list appeals to my personal taste far more, but certain omissions and the sway towards white authors are frustrating.

    There are lots Iโ€™d like to pick up eventually though, so Iโ€™m excited to start seeing peopleโ€™s reviews come in! ๐Ÿ“š

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    1. That’s exactly it! There’s a fair number of titles I’m genuinely looking forward to reading here, but even so it would’ve been nice to see a more varied and diverse whole. Definitely looking forward to seeing more reviews of these books though, and I hope the reading will overall be a better experience this time around! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  5. Feel a bit disappointed by the list tbh. I had high hopes for Kololo Hill, The First Woman and several others. There’s a lot of books on this list that I secretly hoped wouldn’t be there! I’m going to try to read as much as I can but my library stocks none of these so might not make it this year! I can’t justify buying books I’m not 100% excited for

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    1. Honestly the more I look at it the more I realize that while I’m excited about reading some of the individual titles the group as a whole does leave something to be desired. Kololo Hill and/or The First Woman would’ve been great additions here! It seems there are a lot of great books that missed out, which I suppose is true every year, but especially sad when it looks like 3 white English mysteries made the cut for example instead of some more varied options. I can definitely understand reading less due to availability as well; it looks like some of these will be hard to get ahold of in the US which will limit my reading too, unfortunately.

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  6. I really like the way you organized this. Sometimes, the WP list seems so long that I’m not really sure where bloggers’ interests lie and why. Perhaps some folks just plan on reading all of them, but I’m interested in what’s appealing.

    When I first read the cover of Because of You by Dawn French, I thought book title was Drawn French, and my brain was like, “Hey! That sounds fun!” Why is her name so huge and prominent?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I tried a new layout this year, and am glad to hear it worked out well. It is easy when planning to read all of the books to just list them all off without really differentiating, but since I’m not sure exactly how much I’ll be reading this year it made more sense to divide up the list in order of priority. And to be fair, 16 books for a longlist is A LOT, it can be hard to keep up with even for those invested in reading ~all the books.~

      I believe Dawn French is a celebrity author, so people will buy the book because she wrote it regardless of the title- a marketing strategy. Her bio says she’s a British actress, writer, and comedian, who’s been nominated for awards, though I’d never heard of her before yesterday! Although I can’t say I’m very knowledgeable about celebrities in general.

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      1. Yeah, I’d never heard of French either. I’m glad you’re not committing yourself to the entire last. Last year’s reading experience seemed awful for everyone in general. If you’re not into it, let it go. If you don’t support the author in general, let it go. Here’s to a happy award season!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you! You’re right, last year’s WP really was so disappointing for so many, in my little corner of the blogosphere at least! I’m hoping this year will be an improvement, but just from approaching it as something I can pick and choose from is already helping immensely.

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  7. Agree on everything – a list more suited for me personally, but frustrating on some other aspects. I can’t believe I did not make the connection that Lockwood wrote Priestdaddy as well! I am useless. I am so excited to see your thoughts on some of these!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Useless, says the woman who remembered Exciting Times was a debut after the rest of us missed it in Rachel’s list! ๐Ÿ™‚ I made the Lockwood connection because I’ve been seeing Priestdaddy around quite a lot lately for some reason, otherwise it probably would’ve gone over my head too, haha. But it’s good to hear we’re all pretty much in agreement with the highs and lows of the list this year. It could’ve been better (read: less white) but it’ll still be exciting to start seeing more thoughts on these books!

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    1. It sounds great, right?! I wish I could take credit for the idea but I’ve seen several people mention reading (or wanting to read) them together, which was what put Passing on my radar. I think Hadeer read them both recently and vouched for it as a duo in one of her wrap-ups!

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  8. I didn’t have any expectations, so can’t say I’m disappointed – or the opposite. However, I am so glad to see Transcendent Kingdom on the list. Together with Love and Other Thought Experiments, which I ended up loving as well (as expected) this is so far my favourite read in 2021. Not overly excited about the rest, but there are a few which I am curious about, so will probably read one or two from the longlist.

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    1. Yay, I’m glad to find another Transcendent Kingdom stan! I didn’t get on quite as well with Love and Other Thought Experiments but I did love how totally unique it was and am glad to hear you had better luck. I hope if you pick up any more of this year’s WP longlist books you’ll have good experiences and perhaps discover another favorite in the process!

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  9. I love how you organized your thoughts!
    I pretty much agree with all of this, especially re: the frustrating whiteness of the list even though many of the books individually sound appealing to me. I just wish it weren’t THAT many very similar sounding books by White authors from the US and the UK. I am very glad to be able to pick and choose this year.
    I am starting to hear good things about Small Pleasures, I just wish it wasn’t set in the 50s.
    I am really looking forward to your thoughts of whatever book you pick up next!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I completely agree; while in theory I like that there might be some thematic resonance between list titles it is so frustrating to see a lack of variety in the list as a whole, in both author representation and in content. I really would be curious to know whether/how the judges consider the optics of the overall list, whether they do anything to lessen redundancies in the group of books as a whole.
      I am glad to hear you’ve been seeing positive reactions to Small Pleasures! The 50s setting isn’t grabbing me either, but otherwise I think I’m interested enough in the story to give it a shot… And actually I picked up Piranesi this week so that will be my first WP review! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  10. I never seem to have read any books that are nominated for awards lol but I was interested to see Claire Fuller make it on this list. I have read Swimming Lessons and the highlight was definitely her writing style; it flows beautifully.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s what I’m hearing! I’ve not yet read any of Fuller’s work but every synopsis interests me and so many readers praise her prose. This seems like the perfect opportunity for me to finally check out her work. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed Swimming Lessons, that definitely bodes well!

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  11. So far I haven’t read any of the novels on the list, although a few of them are definitely intriguing. Others are . . . less appealing โ€“ I’m basically in line with you on this! I tend not to read entire prize lists (or at least not right away) but I really enjoy using them for inspiration and hope to get to a few of these titles very soon. I loved your coverage of the WP last year so am looking forward to seeing your thoughts on the ones you choose!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! ๐Ÿ™‚ I feel much the same about this year’s list, being drawn to some of the titles much more than others! It’s been a fun project in the past to read through the entire list, but having done that a few times it seems more practical to just skip over the ones I’m pretty sure will be duds for me. Even so, quite a few here caught my curiosity! Prize lists are great for TBR inspiration.

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